Organization and Voter Education

If you’re waging a write-in bid, volunteers and political organizers better head into the field more prepared and educated than in a traditional race. They can employ traditional campaign methods, such as knocking on doors or distributing yard signs, but every organizer also needs to know the basic instructions of the state’s write-in ballot. For example, Murkowski’s volunteers distributed literature and paraphernalia with the words “Fill it in; Write it in.” It was a reminder that in Alaska, voters must not only write in her name, but also fill in the corresponding bubble with a writing utensil to ensure their ballot is counted correctly.

In any race, it helps if the candidate is an established officeholder or is already well known. But that’s even more so the case in a write-in campaign. That was the situation for Charlie Wilson, who was a state senator when he failed to make the ballot.

“You have to have someone who has a loyal following of supporters and fundraisers,” says Justin Barasky, an aide on Wilson’s campaign.  

A write-in effort needs as much time as possible to organize—more time than the average race. In the 2010 cycle in Massachusetts, Republican James McKenna, garnered almost 30,000 signatures in a last-ditch effort to get on the ballot to challenge Attorney General Martha Coakley, who was running unopposed. In the end, those close to the campaign said that he didn’t have enough time to raise his name identification to really challenge Coakley.

“He started so late in the game, he got as much name recognition as possible by gathering the signatures and making that a news story. Martha Coakley had 100 percent name recognition,” says Nathan Little, executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party. “I would have loved to have seen the race had it been a contest for more than eight weeks.”

In Murkowski’s case Alaska’s election laws were relatively lenient, and state election officials said they would only count “voter intent” when determining whether a write-in vote would count for Murkowski. That allowed room for slight misspellings of her name. (The standard was challenged in court by Murkowski’s opponent but eventually dropped because her margin of victory made her opponent’s case a moot point.) This is where knowledge of the law among field organizers can be critical. In some states, election officials are allowed to give voters a list of write-in candidates before they head into the booth. That practice is barred under Alaska law, but would be an asset for write-in candidates and organizers in states that permitted it. 

Fundraising

Raising money outside the party structure can present one of the most difficult tasks for a write-in candidate, but a key legal decision last cycle also contributed to Murkowski’s success and will likely help future write-in candidates down the road. The Alaska Republican benefited greatly from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which permits corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on independent expenditures to influence political campaigns. A Super PAC, funded mostly by Native Alaskan corporations, dumped millions into the race on Murkowski’s behalf.

“It was a new effect in this election, and that is the result of Citizens United. There was a large independent expenditure against Murkowski in the primary, and a large independent expenditure for her in the general,” explains Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich. “I think campaigns need to be aware of that, and will probably react different to that now.”

It also helped that Murkowski already had money in the bank. Since she was caught by surprise when she lost her primary, Murkowski began her write-in campaign with more than $1 million cash on hand. She was also lucky in another financial respect. She didn’t need as much money because her last name had nearly 100 percent name identification from eight years in the U.S. Senate, as well as her father’s tenure in the upper chamber and as governor. Similarly, Wilson was well known because he was already a state senator in the area, and boasted a strong donor base.